Opt Out Reminder: It’s Still a Powerful Act of Civil Disobedience.


Guest Post: Anne Burn Thomas, Ph.D. SUNY Cortland.

Why I’m opting out of the state assessments.

In the past few months, the idea of resisting as protest to a range of policies and ideas has populated headlines, Twitter streams, and even in-person conversations. One of the ways that I’m resisting destructive changes to a vital but much maligned institution is by “opting out” my children from the New York State ELA and Mathematics Assessments. I choose to resist the ranking and sorting of children through impersonal instruments that perpetuate an unfair and unequal system.

My decision is based on the best interests of all children in New York State, not just my own. By opting out, I am not protesting against the schools my children attend, the work that their teachers do to provide a rich and rigorous education, or even the impulse by the government to collect data on student performance. For me, this decision is not informed by concerns about my children’s performance or the impulse to protect them from the rigors of a developmentally inappropriate test; it goes beyond the personal to the political and to my understanding of the ways that acceptance of this assessment and accountability system are negatively impacting schools and teachers across New York.

As a professor in teacher education at SUNY Cortland, I study schools, teachers, and equity, and I know that teachers are the best source of information about children’s learning and growth over time. I’m protesting against the NYS assessments because the pressure to perform on these tests undermines the teacher as a source of knowledge. I know of schools outside our own district where assessment standards guide all instructional decision making, even against the advice and knowledge of the teaching staff. In other districts, administrators are employing scripted, one size fits all curricula to achieve improvement or growth on the exams. And I’ve personally seen schools where students are denied recess and instruction in science and social studies in favor of test preparation. These things don’t happen in my children’s schools, and I bet they only happen in limited ways in schools where we live. But they happen, and they happen overwhelmingly in districts that have significant populations of students who are experiencing economic insecurity.

The focus on state assessments puts poor kids at a particular disadvantage. I’ve heard from teachers in districts where the majority of students live with the kind of economic insecurity that makes it hard to concentrate on reading a favorite book, let alone hours and hours of testing spread over several days. Some policymakers purport that the tests are necessary to assess student performance in order to shine a light on the ways that schools are not meeting all students’ needs, or to reduce the achievement gap between middle class students and students living in economic insecurity. I’m not sure why we feel we need more data to be certain of what most people already know: schools do not serve the needs of students living in economic insecurity and excessive testing will not help to make that shift.

Much like the decision by Ithaca’s Common Council to push for our city’s recognition as a sanctuary city, I propose that parents view opting out as a move toward justice for all. I believe that parents and guardians who have the political and social capital to take a stand against movements toward standardization and excessive assessment and accountability should do so by opting out of the state assessments on behalf of their children. Opting out of the New York State Grades 3-8 ELA and Math Assessments can send a message to state and federal lawmakers that we believe in quality education that values the experience and expertise of teachers and that resists the inequities that are reinforced in schools every day. By taking on this protest, Ithaca may become a model of educational sanctuary, a place committed to providing educational opportunities for all students free from the pressures and inherent hypocrisy of systems of standardization and punitive accountability.